What Do You Do?

by Thomas Day

I’m sitting in a line of vehicles, waiting to turn left into a university parking lot. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining. I can almost see a bluish tint from the sky leaking through the smog. The temperature is, as always, perfect for motorcycling or any other warm weather outdoor activity. But I’m solidly on edge. I’m in southern California and I’ve been tense for the last two years.

The two cars in front of me have turned tension into action. The lead driver made the radical decision to stop on yellow; almost a driving felony in southern California. The driver in the following four-by-four practically stood his pickup on its bumper to avoid rear-ending the lead car. Before the pickup tires stopped squealing, the driver was pounding on his horn. The driver in the front car offered a one-finger salute in response. In true California tradition, the action turned serious faster than you can sing “We gotta get outta this place.” 

The guy in the pickup jumped out, reached behind his seat, pulled out a shiny blue aluminum baseball bat, and started stomping toward the car at the head of the queue. The other driver calmly reached under his seat, took out his pistol, and got out of his car to face the guy with the bat. I’m sitting on my bike, third in line, solidly in the line of fire, with a great view of the action, looking for a way to get back into the flow of traffic and away from the war zone.

Traffic is flowing without the tiniest space between vehicles and I’m stuck. The car behind me has left about six inches of clearance between his bumper and my rear wheel and I have about four feet to work with in making myself scarce before the shooting starts. From behind me, several cars back, a cop fires off his siren. The two whack-jobs dive for their vehicles and, when the light changes, the lead car jumps into the right lane and drives away from the scene, while the second car makes a u-turn and bolts in the opposite direction. I turn into the parking lot, find a space, turn off the bike, put away my gear, and begin another crappy day in Paradise.

We’ve survived another year with the occasional case of mad-dog-driving-an-SUV marring an otherwise mild and beautiful Minnesota summer. Rightfully, we get pretty upset about Minnesota Nice turning into Minnesota Madness. It’s not that bad here . . . yet.

To put this in perspective, the scene I just described occurred in 1985 in Costa Mesa, California. Just a few years later, Steve Martin tossed a “Thursdays are for handguns on the freeway” scene in LA Story and everybody, except southern Californians, thought it was pretty funny. To those of us who lived in SoCal, most of LA Story was a romantic documentary and only funny in the way that scary stuff you have in common with thirty million other crazy folks can be funny.

I tend to think of road madness as just another symptom of overpopulation. You pack living things too close together, they get crazy. Rats do it, hogs do it, coyotes do it, and people are somewhere down the evolutionary tree from those animals, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we do it. We haven’t even begun to go mad in the Cities, but we’re working on it. Adding freeway lanes won’t slow down our two-wheel drift into lunacy. More lanes will just compound the feeling that there are too many people in too small a container and folks will just get more and more violent as they thrash around trying to make elbow room for themselves. And more people will fill the available space. It’s human nature, especially American human nature. In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore tried to figure out why we’re specially inclined toward violent behavior and he only managed to piss off Charlton Heston in his search for an answer. I don’t have any better answers than Heston gave Moore, but I’ve witnessed, first hand, the experience of North American population pressure and it’s not pretty.

When I first moved to California, from Nebraska, I was amazed that almost everyone I knew kept a loaded gun in their glovebox, or under the seat, or stuffed into their belt anytime they were on the road. I mean everyone, as in ordinary people from from every walk of life. The owner of the company that employed me, an upper crust, extremely wealthy, Volvo-driving, Sierra-clubbing Yuppie, had a 9mm automatic under his seat. The scrawny, long-haired, guitar-playing, mild-mannered tech who wrote the code for our automatic test equipment had a silenced .22 automatic under his vintage Austin Healy’s seat and a .45 caliber revolver in an under-dashboard mounted holster. The over-weight, middle-aged woman who ran our manufacturing floor carried a stubby .32 in her purse. Our CFO had a short-barrelled 20-gauge shotgun stuffed under his BMW’s seat. And the list goes on until I felt like I was living in a freaky SiFi western populated with Japanese and European cars instead of horses and wagons. I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, so I know a little about living in a cowboy town, but southern California was way more hostile and far better armed than Dodge ever was. With our shiny new “conceal and carry” law, we’re heading for California attitudes.

While I lived in Orange County, I watched the night dirt track races most summer Friday evenings. One evening, one racer took a particularly vicious fall and was seriously injured. His mother wrapped him up and stuffed him in her van and took off for the nearest hospital. Apparently, she cut off a guy on a freeway exit on the way to the hospital and he took exception to that mortal insult to his family pride. He pumped a clip load into her van, leaving her and the injured rider to die. The rider survived the incident, but his mother didn’t. The driver/gunner was a middle-aged guy on his way home from work who just couldn’t let a freeway insult pass without voicing his opinion . . . with a pistol he always carried in his glovebox.

Keeping our tendency toward vicious reprisals in mind, I try to remind myself of a quote from the MSF’s Basic Rider video, whenever I start to get worked up over someone else’s driving; “a motorcycle will never win in a battle with a car.” No matter what silly crap you’ve seen in the last 50 years of Hell’s Angels movies, a car beats a motorcycle (or motorcycles) like rocks break scissors. Four wheels and several tons of mass will shove two wheels and 500-1000 pounds of bike and rider pretty much anywhere the four wheels wants to take the two wheels. If you include the weapons storage capabilities (and likelhood) of SUVs and other large vehicles that often contain specially irritated and irritating cagers, you don’t have a chance in a one-on-one confrontation.

I’d recommend that you choke down your rage, think about something pleasant (while keeping your mind on the road and traffic), and keep that fickle finger on the handlebars. It might be therapeutic to vent on the highway, but, if you’re not careful, you could be in need of several months of physical therapy after everyone is finished venting. That’s assuming that you live through the confrontation. Ride fast, ride safe, ride often, and control your emotions.

M.M.M.

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